At confab on North Korea, not a single word about the hundreds of thousands in gulags

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By Donald Kirk,

What are the experts thinking when they talk in learned tones, replete with facts and stats, about issues and conditions for North-South Korean reunification, the pitfalls and problems, but omit passing mention of one of the most awful obstacles?

At a conference this week bearing the portentous title, “Unification and North Korea,” I waited expectantly for just one of the presenters to touch, however briefly, on the question of human rights in North Korea.

President George W.Bush welcomes Chol-hwan Kang, author of ‘The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag’ to the Oval Office of the White House on June 13, 2005.

No, I didn’t expect anyone to carry on about the need for free speech, freedom of religion or a free press or any of that stuff. We know North Korea isn’t going to say fine to all that even if, in some unforeseen scenario, the regime up there actually does assent to a viable form of reunification.

No, what I really wanted to know was what the presenters at the conference, staged by SaKong Il’s prestigious Institute for Global Economics, might say about the fate of the 200,000 or so North Koreans consigned to a vast gulag system from which there is no escape except death — by starvation, disease, overwork, torture or execution — but anyway, death. Oh, and I was curious about the tens of thousands, nobody knows how many, of other prisoners held under terrible conditions in prisons and jails from which they might actually be released, sooner or later.

It was difficult to ask about all this since most of the talkers didn’t stop talking long enough to take questions, but I did manage to get a word in edge-wise at the end of a session moderated by Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute in Washington.

I noted that the words, “human rights,” had not been uttered by any of the professors and experts from Germany or from prestigious universities in Seoul and the United States. Nor did any of several South Korean ministers on the agenda, for unification, foreign affairs and finance, raise the topic.

My question was how could the fate of hundreds of thousands of prisoners in North Korea not be a central issue, maybe the central issue, in the event of reunification and why had all these noted presenters and panelists totally ignored the issue.

No, I didn’t say how little chance there was of North Korea opening the doors to the prison camps and letting the inmates pour South when and as they pleased. I just wanted to know how the problem would affect reunification, if they knew of a solution — and why they left the topic out of the flow of verbiage.

The only member of the panel who responded was an economics professor from Germany, Ulrich Blum. He wanted me to know that people in East Germany had suffered too, that they had plenty of terrible stories to tell of hard times before they too became citizens of all Germany, free to live as and where they chose.

He neglected to note, of course, that the regime of East Germany had collapsed, that the Berlin Wall had come down, that the East German prisons were never at all as horrible as those in North Korea and that East Germany was no longer a communist or even socialist state when the tidal wave of reform swept the former Soviet satellites of eastern Europe. Maybe he didn’t want to bore us with details.

I would have also liked a comment from Koh Young-Sun, chief economist of the Korea Development Institute, on the same panel, but he remained silent. In his paper, he came up with impressive numbers comparing the circumstances of possible Korean reunification with those in West and East Germany more than 20 years ago.

His command of the statistics was amazing, as was the reality that he conveyed that the two Koreas would be far more difficult to bring together than were the two Germanys. But did he have human rights in mind when he closed with a call for directing “current efforts” at “rationalizing welfare programs and strengthening their delivery systems”? If so, he didn’t say so.

Bradley Babson, after 26 years with the World Bank, now at Johns Hopkins in Washington, spoke of “the more future oriented and worldly economic perspectives being promoted by the youthful new leader,” Kim Jong-Un, but that’s all wishful thinking. Nobody really knows what the kid is doing, or who’s doing it for him.

Babson, in a lengthy treatise, took President Lee Myung-Bak to task for “anti-North Korean rhetoric and provocations in the West Sea that predated the attack on the Cheonan.”

Oh sure, let’s blame that outrage on Lee. And, for good measure, why not go on, as he did, about Lee’s “essentially negative” policies? Yes, while talking up the old Sunshine policy of Lee’s predecessors, he skipped North Korea’s gulag system too.

So, getting back to my question, I still wonder how such earnest, dedicated, knowledgeable people can purport to cover reunification — and then not say a word, not one word, about the hundreds of thousands of prisoners in the North? Where are they going to go? Do they get to come South too? Or are they forgotten, out of sight and out of mind? Do any of these presenters and panelists seriously think that reunification can happen if no one addresses this problem?

Next time assorted professors and experts and ministers gather for such a conference, maybe they can try and come up with answers – or at least get the subject on the agenda.